Thoughts on “Life of Pi”

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel is heavily marketed as the kind of spiritual journey that will give rebirth to your belief in God. While I’ve still yet to see the movie, I was able to recently finish the book after a feverish encounter with the last hundred pages or so, and I have to say it was quite the unsettling and powerful experience.

The set up is so simple and bizarre that you probably already know it well, or at least the basics: after a cargo ship full of animals capsizes, a zookeeper’s young son is trapped aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger where he must not only best the Pacific Ocean, sunburns, and his own impending starvation, but he has to deal with Richard Parker as well. (That’s the tiger! I know. Weird name. Long Story.) I went into Life of Pi expecting your run of the mill survival at sea tale, and I was pleasantly surprised to find something entirely different. To call it a spiritual journey is an understatement. When you turn the final page, it strikes you that what you’ve just read is the closest thing to a Testament that you’ve encountered since Catholic School. Whereas similar books – like the delightful novel by Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist – thrive on a more eastern conceptualization of spirituality focused on meditation and what might be called magic, Life of Pi deals with something closer to a multi-religious / transcendent idea that faith and mythos represent the heart of humanity. It’s not God vs. Allah vs. Buddha. He’s just God. And he is Love.

Life of Pi is comprised of three major parts with one nearly forgotten framing device. The story opens with a traveling writer on the hunt for a story. He is quickly referred to Piscine Patel, the lone human survivor of the Tsimtsum which sank in the Pacific. The “author” then interviews Mr. Patel to get the main bulk of the story: Pi’s life before, during, and after his journey at sea with the tiger, but much of this set up gets forgotten once the real story gets going. In the first major section, Pi relates to us his childhood at the zoo in Pondicherry, India where he self-identifies as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and vegetarian, much to the confusion of his family, friends, and religious leaders. “I just want to love God,” he says when confronted about it. Who can argue against that? Certainly not any man of faith, that’s for sure. It is in these chapters of casual self-discovery that we come to appreciate the quiet contentedness of Pi’s life in Pondicherry and we get a clear picture of our narrator as a genuinely nice child of great spiritual curiosity and a keen appreciation for nature.

Out of some political paranoia, Piscine’s father decides to pack up and move to Canada, a migration that requires them to transport the animals and sell them in North America rather than in India. Several days into the journey, a storm leads Pi to be stranded on the lifeboat with not only a tiger, but a zebra, hyena, and orangutan as well. The hyena eats the zebra and orangutan, and then the majestic beast that is Richard Parker gets annoyed with the hyena and deftly plays a very short game of two-fang filet. I wonder why he would do that?

Ohhh, right. That’s why!

Needless to say, the one-on-one time that Pi has with Richard Parker takes a tremendous physical, emotional, and spiritual toll on the both of them. Pi’s memory of his 227 days is a jumbled smattering of the crushingly dull and the utterly fantastic. Nature and beauty are juxtaposed with suffering and torment and only through appreciating the first can Pi survive the second. Much of what happens, particularly in the later sections of the book, is scientifically impossible, an opinion that is confirmed in the final thirty pages or so in which Pi is interviewed by two agents from the Japanese Ministry of Transport. This interview gives the reader in a bit of telling – rather than showing – through which the novel’s deeper themes about belief are clearly stated. In earlier sections we are shown the nature of Pi’s journey, but we can’t possibly process what it really means until it’s assessed through the eyes of a third party. Magical. Mystical. Miraculous. And utterly unbelievable.

The conflict that evolves is the age-old battle between Fact and Faith. Yann Martel (based on my reading of his other book Beatrice and Virgil) has a fixation on the power of Stories to color our lives with the substance and meaning to make them worth living. In his conception of human beings, there are those that believe in what they can see and those that believe in what they can feel. What we can prove and what we can believe in. For Martel, Stories are our way of making sense of our experiences. Through them, we digest the sensory information in a personal and societal tale that can convey the character of a human life. That Story, be it the story of a boy’s journey with a tiger or the story of Christ, is more important than adhering to provable, scientific truths. If we only believe what is knowable, then we reject the miraculous and sacrifice the wonderful, imaginative, and creative. This atheistic kind of slavery to fact can limit us to what is explicitly knowable and lead us away from anything that might challenge the way in which we view the world. To put it in a different light, Yann Martel is proposing that God will always be a better story for the world than a story about his absence in which meaningless suffering is King. Something, rather than nothing, is always better.

Martel is also pointing out that sometimes the Truth and the Facts are two entirely different things. In many cases the facts may be terrible, but the truth can always be beautiful if we believe in something greater. In this, Truth in fiction characterizes mankind better than the facts of nonfiction will ever be. What separates man from mere animal is our ability to transform our lives into these stories that are worth telling and, even more important, worth listening to.

If you’ve ever asked yourself some of these questions, or ever wondered about the nature of suffering, or God, or stories, or fiction, then Life of Pi is a book you should encounter at least once in your life. Sometimes books gain immense popularity out of some momentary bout of sensationalism, and sometimes books become worldwide phenomena because they speak to some universal quality to our existence. Life of Pi is definitely an example of the latter. Pick it up today.

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